Magazine article The American Conservative

Saved by the Divine Comedy

Magazine article The American Conservative

Saved by the Divine Comedy

Article excerpt

How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History's Greatest Poem, Rod Dreher, Regan Arts, 320 pages

I was once in Florence's little Dante museum, the Casa di Dante, on a quiet afternoon when an Italian mom and her son were also having a look around. At one point the boy, who appeared to be about five years old, broke free and proceeded to dart from room to room, sing-songing "Dante! Dante! Dante!"

This year, the 750th anniversary of the poet's birth, lots of others are singing his praises as well--actor Roberto Benigni, reciting Dante in the Italian Senate; Pope Francis, who recommended the Commedia as preparation for the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy; astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who read Dante aloud from the International Space Station; and "your working boy," as American Conservative Senior Editor Rod Dreher likes to refer to himself.

Early in his new book, Dreher takes pains to say, "I am not Dante," as a way of reassuring the reader that his own highly personal story of exile is rather different from that of the medieval Italian poet, expelled at age 35 from his beloved Florence, never to return. After all, Dreher writes, "circumstances did not destroy my reputation, reduce me to a wandering beggar, or threaten my life."

Dreher's tale is instead one of self-imposed exile from his St. Francisville, Louisiana-based family and his attempts to return home in several ways. How Dante Can Save Your Life intersperses scenes from the author's life with short sections that introduce the reader to Dante and, more importantly, to Dreher's experience of reading Dante, creating a book that alternates between two worlds, medieval and modern.

The road to Inferno is paved by personal experience. Dreher's return to Louisiana as the brother of a dying sister was movingly described in his earlier The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, wherein his lingering, guilty sense of the importance of family and place is made vivid as he witnesses firsthand the local community's outpouring of devotion during his sister's last weeks before succumbing to cancer and in the aftermath of her passing. This return is complicated, however, by his discovery of the first of several "family secrets": that Ruthie's habit of making disparaging comments about her absent brother has jaundiced her children against their Uncle Rod and left them unenthusiastic about his reentry into their lives.

Next, his return as a kind of prodigal son--a reconciling act that he hoped would affirm his father's lifelong insistence on the importance of family--leads to a conversation in which his father confesses that he only remained in St. Francisville all these years because he felt trapped there and had no other option. Noble motives of localism did not play a part. Near the end of this emotional scene, Dreher's father reflects that his earlier opposition to his son's move to take up a literary career across the country was also wrongheaded, a matter of sheer stubbornness on his part. All of which Dreher finds rather unsettling.

Finally, his return as a cultural exile likewise has had its ambiguous moments, with a mix of joyful scenes amidst what he calls the "bayou Confucians" along with the inevitable frustrations of relative isolation for a young and bookish family. When health problems--a case of Epstein-Barr virus--were added to his situation, it was enough to leave Rod Dreher in precisely that dark wood where Dante knew that each of us, as Everyman, would eventually arrive in our lives.


This realization came in the summer of 2013, as Dreher, aged 46, was standing in a Barnes & Noble in Baton Rouge browsing the poetry section. He pulled down a copy of the Inferno and opened at the beginning to read: "Midway in the journey of our life / I came to myself in a dark wood, / For the straight way was lost."

He read on, through the first two cantos, struck by the poet's depiction of himself as a man trapped "in a thicket of fear and confusion, powerless to escape," something close to his own feelings of depression and anxiety at that moment. …

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